Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series previewing area high school football teams.

PLEASANT VALLEY — The best motivator for this year can sometimes be last year, and last year is a motivator for Pleasant Valley in 2014.

“We could very well have had the best team that we’ve had since I’ve been here last year,” 10th-year Raiders coach Jeff Davis said. “I felt like we underachieved as a team, and that’s nobody’s fault but mine.”

Pleasant Valley’s 3-7 finish was a disappointment, and the Raiders face real challenges trying to improve on it this year. They have a combined 12 juniors and seniors, eight who have played. Reclassification bumped them from Class 2A to 3A, in a region with Piedmont, Glencoe and Wellborn … to name a few.

Among graduation losses from a year ago were long-time starting lineman Jared Colvin and three-year starting quarterback Lucas Ford. Running back Drew Lewiski appears likely to move to quarterback.

The Raiders also lost returning starting guard Nick O’Dell during the spring jamboree. He jumped to celebrate a touchdown and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

But Pleasant Valley has 48 players, up from 38 a year ago. Davis sees good leadership from his few older players and promise in the younger classes.

Davis and his staff have used this offseason to make sure mental toughness is where it needs to be throughout the roster. That’s why he thinks this year’s team could be improved.

“Position by position, no,” Davis said. “Heart for heart, yes. These kids, we challenged them in the spring, and they responded. If we had challenged last year’s team the way we challenged this year’s team, they wouldn’t have responded.

“They’re buying in. Whatever we dished at them this summer, they welcomed it with open arms.”

The 2013 season devolved quickly. An 0-2 start included a 33-32 loss to Ranburne, with Lewiski stopped just short of the goal line on a two-point conversion in overtime.

Ranburne went on to have a stellar season. Pleasant Valley, which played the same opponents, not so much.

Davis made a point of that during the offseason.

“We thought we were over this mentality, back in ’07 and ’08, where, at the first sight of something bad happening (we struggled),” Davis said. “But it crept back in on us. … We put the law down on this bunch pretty good.”

Results were encouraging in the spring. Pleasant Valley beat both White Plains and Ohatchee in jamboree action.

The challenge becomes carrying the right mindset into the fall. The first five games against Ranburne and the four Ws — Weaver, Wellborn, Westbrook Christian and White Plains — will be a key.

“I believe we can make the playoffs, but I believe we need to get something going, though,” Lewiski said. “If we can get a stride and get some momentum from the first couple of games, I think we can do well and maybe make a playoff run.

“It just depends if we can get that stride. Last year, we had trouble just getting something good to happen. It just depends if we can get something good to happen.”

Lewiski could be the trigger man. If a younger player doesn’t develop at quarterback quickly enough, then he’ll go to the shotgun and work the read-option game with tailback Dalton Bean.

“It opens up some doors,” said Lewiski, who had 1,500 all-purpose yards a year ago, including 1,100 rushing. “We kind of have the dual-threat running thing now, where we can let Dalton run the ball from tailback, and I can run some quarterback runs. They’ve got to cover two people rather than just one.”

Lewiski and Bean combined for 1,800 yards rushing in 2013.

Besides Lewiski, who also plays safety, and Bean, who will double as defensive tackle, Pleasant Valley returns five starters covering six positions: linebacker Josh Preston; center Chase Craven; guard/defensive tackle R.J. Simpson; offensive tackle Kasey Cochran; and defensive end Hunter Beadles.

Davis is counting on contributions from several new starters.

Offensive lineman Mason Langley “had the best spring of anybody on the offensive line,” Davis said. “He’s not a returning starter, but he’s 6-3 and about 250 and had a great spring, and we were really excited.”

Davis also has high hopes for flexible offensive lineman Tanner Richards.

Freshman Logan Beadles, Hunter’s little brother, is 6-1, 260 and looks to start at one defensive end after a strong spring. He could factor on the offensive line.

Cantor and Taylor Knight could step in at linebacker, as well as newcomer Troy Payne and Thomas Emery. Payne and Emory could also step in on offense, possibly at receiver.

Sophomore Dakota Jones, whom Davis describes as a “Lewiski-type athlete”, had a strong spring game and looks to step in at cornerback, along with classmate David Pock.

Davis said his small upper classes will have to lead, and the Raiders will have to avoid injuries.

“Our biggest concern is we’ve got to be injury-free,” Davis said. “We can’t afford to lose anybody else.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.